Our sermons throughout Lent are on “Giving Up Your Own Way.” We’re following the Revised Common Lectionary and considering those things God calls us to give up – not just for 40 days, but for all of our days – so that we can take up the way of Jesus Christ. This week’s sermon is on “Giving Up Control.” Read or listen below.
Wednesday evening we began the 40 days of Lent bearing a symbol on our foreheads – a cross of ash, marking all of us as those who have remembered we are dust.
A pastor friend of mine has an annual Ash Wednesday tradition. For some years now, when the Ash Wednesday service is over and the sanctuary is clear, he gathers his things from a busy day and carries them to his car, where he drives immediately to Target. Then, still bearing the smudge of ash, he walks throughout the aisles – no shopping list or specific errand, just a deliberate practice of walking around in public with the cross of ash upon his forehead. (1)
It reminds us that we pastors can be a little weird! But more, it’s his way of letting others know who he is, in the shampoo aisle, or amidst the home decor and particle board furniture, or in the checkout line or parking lot. The cross on his forehead interrupts the ordinary patterns to signals to others, and maybe to him once more, “I am the one for whom Christ died” and further more, “I am one seeking to take up this cross in my own life.”
What if long after our foreheads were clean and clear we lived in such a way that this was known about us? In our day to day settings, our places of influence, our places of work, our families, amidst our tasks and to do lists, what it was clear that we are the ones who have taken up this self-giving love, this way of vulnerability and trust in God, this way that challenges the patterns and powers of this world? We are the ones who have taken up the cross.
This is the call of Jesus throughout the gospels: “Take up your cross and follow me.” But it’s usually accompanied by another call, as we hear it in Matthew 16: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lost their life for my sake will find it.” Or in another translation, “If you want to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me” (NLT).
If we are going to take up the cross – this way of Jesus – then first we must give up all that the cross is not.
Just like disciples who drop their nets – and with them their plans and patterns – so their arms are open and their lives are unencumbered.
Or like those who are sent out by Jesus – no staff, no money, no bag or tunic – so they can learn what it is to walk free and vulnerable through this world
These are the same who will have to learn, finally, that they must give up all their notions of what a kingdom might be and all of their schemes for power or strength, in favor of a kingdom not of this world.
If any of us disciples are going to take up the cross of Jesus, we must first give up all that the cross is not.
This has led Christians for generations to a Lenten discipline of “giving up” comforts or habits throughout these 40 days. We make small sacrifices, meant to free up space in our lives, and remind us of the large offerings called for by a life of discipleship. The practice prompts the annual question, “What are you giving up for Lent?”
Among the common answers ar chocolate, swearing, the news, soda and sweet tea, or social media (Of course, not before you tell Facebook you’re giving up Facebook).
Our 7 yr old, Jack, had a couple buddies over for a sleepover Friday night, which has led us to give up sleepovers for Lent.
What are you giving up? There are many ways we answer that question, if we practice this discipline of denial. For some of us it functions as a second chance at a New Year’s resolution, or an opportunity to sanctify something self-serving we’ve been meaning to do anyway. I know I’ve been drinking too much sweet tea ever since I returned south of the Mason Dixon line a few years ago. But what if we gave up more than sweet tea? And what is God calling us to give up not merely for 40 days, but for all our days? What do we need to lay down so we might be known as those who have taken up the cross?
Jesus calls us to give up our own way because he himself did it first. Before he ever took up the cross or appeared at the lakeshore of our lives to call us to follow, he is led by the Spirit into the desert. It’s a place many of us have been before – a dry place of denial, where food and water are scarce, the sun bears down, and the way seems obscured and uncertain. That’s where we find Jesus in his first public appearance, baptized in the middle of the desert, with all those wanderers standing round, before he’s led even further into the desert for 40 days.
As Matthew tells it, Jesus is hungry – famished actually – at the end of his 40 days. He’s human after all, and doesn’t fare much better than you or I would. His baptism must have been a distant memory. There are no doves descending. The Jordan River is only a mirage at this point. There’s no voice from heaven. Those words, “You are my beloved Son,” no longer ring as loudly in his ears.
It’s in this moment of vulnerability that the tempter sees an opening. Three temptations: Turn stones into bread and satisfy your hunger, prove you are the son of God with a simple stunt, and say a word and take power over all the kingdoms of the world. All three are specific, concrete temptations, but in some ways, all three are the same, tempting Jesus to shift confidence away from God to a substitute that promises to offer security, satisfaction, status, strength. It’s always the temptation: to shift your confidence away from God and toward your own way, your own impulse, your own control.
The tempter has been at it from the beginning, always seeing this opening amidst the children of God. In many ways, the story of Adam and Eve is about this same control. It’s not set in a desert, but a paradise where all was provided, except for the fruit of a certain tree. So the tempter leads Adam and Eve up to a high place where they could see all that could be theirs if they would simply seize control of their own lives: “God just doesn’t want you to know what God knows and be as powerful as God is. God wants to control you! It doesn’t have to be that way. You can be in control yourself.”
It’s when Adam and Eve aspire for that control that they damage their relationship with God, they spoil the bond that exists between the two of them, and they even jeopardize how they live in and with God’s good creation. They don’t trust the Creator as much as they trust themselves. It might be common to all temptation. The tempter seems to know where we’re weak.
In one of his books, Henri Nouwen, a Jesuit scholar and spiritual writer, tells the story about some of his friends who were trapeze artists – the Flying Rodelas. One thing they told Henri Nouwen is that there’s a very special relationship between the flyer and the catcher on the trapeze. The flyer is the one who lets go, and the catcher is the one who catches. As you might imagine, this relationship is important – especially to the flyer.
When the flyer is swinging high above the crowd on the trapeze, the moment comes when he must let go. He arcs out into the air, and his job is to remain as still as possible and to wait for the strong hands of the catcher to pluck him from the air.
The trapeze artist told Nouwen that the secret is that the flyer must never try to catch the catcher. “The flyer does nothing and the catcher does everything.” The flyer must never try to catch the catcher. The flyer, suspended in the air in complete vulnerability must wait in absolute trust. The flyer must be still and know. The catcher will catch him; but he must wait. He must trust. “A flyer must fly, and a catcher must catch, and the flyer must trust, with outstretched arms, that his catcher will be there for him.”
And Nouwen writes: “Remember that you are the beloved child of God. God will be there when you make your long jump. Don’t try to grab; God will catch you. Just stretch out your arms and hands and trust, trust, trust.” (2)
There’s so much that Jesus can rush to grab hold of in this temptation story. So much the tempter asks him to rush to catch and to control, abandoning his trust in his mission from God in favor of immediate fulfillment.
The first temptation is social and economic, for his ministry to become about turning stones to bread. Which would have been good news for all the hungry throughout the world. Jesus has the power to end human hunger in a split second. No one need ever suffer from it again. But Jesus waits. Jesus trusts.
Next is a religious temptation, to demonstrate a public display of supernatural power, throwing himself down and being caught by angels. It could have given definitive proof of the existence of God and the lordship of Jesus. There would be no more doubts. Just this proof. The world would fall at Jesus’ feet to worship him. He would never have had to take up a cross for it to be so. But Jesus seems to know this is not how the world is saved. So he opens his hands. He gives up his own way. Our own way.
Then the final desert temptation. A political one. Jesus need only submit to the ruler of this world in order to achieve good for the people of this world. Well, I admit, sometimes I almost wish Jesus had caved in here and brought more justice to the world and all its governments, and relief to all those oppressed or forgotten by power. Why didn’t he seize control? He must have been tempted to do just that. But even this is not what his ministry or purpose turns out to be.
Strength. Power. A plan to better this world. To take up the cross, Jesus had to give up all that the cross was not.
If these temptations were set before Jesus, surely they are before us, too.
I think of all that I try to control. All that I attempt to grab. My plans for my family. The quest for institutional health. My desire for our church to be a model of growth and stature in our community. My hope we will be a place of influence. The ambition that tells me my life isn’t big enough yet, and I need a few more tricks and a little more strength. The idealism that tells me I must do more all the time to prove to this world the love of God. The strategy that keeps me bound to the systems of this world, always seeking control and power and forgetting Jesus’ loyalty to a kingdom that is not of this world.
The tempter knows where we’re weak. So we are tempted to rise, not to fall. We are tempted to do what seems right and good and beneficial. The tempter does not approach us with rotten fruit, but with the very best tree in the garden: “Make a meal of these stones… swell the ranks of believers… administer power with justice and mercy.” This is not the voice of one with a pitchfork and horns seated on our shoulder. It’s one who often looks like a friend.
But when we give in, we are again taking up our belief that with enough goodwill, enough strategy, enough power, we can save ourselves, when the cross calls us to set down this need for control to take up another way.
Sara Miles is a writer and minister in San Francisco, who has modeled a ministry of openness to her city, working to help people encounter Jesus amidst their day-to-day lives. Including on Ash Wednesday with the practice of “ashes to go” or “mobile ashes.” In this practice, she walks throughout her neighborhood to bus stops, corner stores, park benches and the like with a sign that invites people to receive the mark of the cross on Ash Wednesday. People respond. Some chase her down before catching a bus. Strangers lift their babies out of cab windows at a stoplight. And Miles describes the relief and gratitude she experiences from people as they receive this smudged symbol of the death of Jesus. She suspects it’s because with this symbol, we are reminded that we are not ultimately in control. In hospitals, for instance, she has marked patients in the midst of difficult health circumstances and find some rest in this mark. She’s even seen the rest and assurance among the medical staff, observing, “It’s as if even the doctors are relieved at this cross that reminds them that they are not in control.” (3)
With the cross, maybe all of us who have heard the voice of the tempter start to hear again the promises of God:
What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?… Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (4)
Jesus goes out to the desert because he finds us all out there, just as tempted as we can be. And we know what happens as he leaves. He moves from that wilderness to the temple to the mountain, just as he does through these three temptations. He knows the path to redemption wasn’t through satisfying his own hunger, but he does go on to feed thousands on the shores of Galilee so that they could come to a deeper understanding of the mercy of God. He declined the offer to throw himself from the heights of the temple to prove who he was, but he does overturn the tables of the moneychangers who had failed to make his Father’s house a place where all are welcome. He doesn’t take the offer of a throne. But he takes up a cross.
It’s there he faces his final temptation, echoing the words of the tempter in the desert: “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” But he remembers his commitment in the desert, so he prays from the cross, “Father into your hands I commend my Spirit,” and he stretches out his arms in trust, trust, trust.
We never would have known that what looked like an end turned out to be a beginning. If it’s true of Jesus, it might be true for us, too. But only if we give up our own way – give up control – and take up the cross.
- Rev. Bill Slater, pastor of Wake Forest Baptist Church
- Nouwen, Our Greatest Gift (1994)
- In “You Are Dust,” a film by Work of the People
- From Romans 8:31-39